Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Figure 1

  In work for the IPPR Commission on the South East (Bramley 2005) I looked at potential housing numbers for this key region from several viewpoints. While clearly the Barker economic analysis points to a large increase in supply in this region, I also pointed out that the same conclusion can be reached from more traditional planning methods and criteria. Based on projected household growth, but taking account of realistic migration and overspill requirements from London, and also based on job growth and labour supply numbers, I argued that the South East should be planning for more like 44,000 extra households per year, not the 25-28,000 preferred by the Regional Assembly. I suggested that, in view of market pressures and job growth trends, much more growth needed to be accommodated in the west and south west of the region, which were not served by the existing designated growth areas. Furthermore, as argued below, there is no sensible way of delivering the large amount of affordable housing which most people agree is needed in this region without a larger total quantum of supply.


  I have argued above for a substantial increase in the supply of both general market housing and affordable/subsidised housing. To promote one without the other would in my view be foolish and short-sighted. For example, some have argued that, in the South East, only or mainly affordable housing should be built. This will clearly not meet requirements of an economy and society based on 70-75% owner occupation; it will not be fundable by either the Government or s106 agreements; it will reproduce unpopular and unsustainable social housing ghettos; it will drive house prices ever higher; etc etc.

Response of Planning System to Demand for Housing for Sale

  Planning and planners have often been criticised for ignoring the market, and Barker can be seen as the latest round of this debate. The Government is now leaning towards requiring the planning system to pay more attention to market evidence, not in place of but alongside its established concerns with environmental sustainability, social and economic need. It is not suggested that planning should abandon all this and slavishly follow every market trend. Planning is necessarily long term, and it should seek to shape and steer development in desirable directions. I think the key new elements which are being added are (1) the notion of affordability targets as a key criterion of adequacy of housing supply, and (2) the requirement to have regard to market evidence as one signal of whether planning decisions are broadly right or should be reviewed. Affordability is actually a marriage of market and social concepts, not a purely market criterion. The use of price signals can arise in different contexts, but I shall just comment on one.

  Barker suggested that there might be an element of land supply which was contingent on market conditions; if prices were higher, or rising faster, than expected, more land should be released. This idea is being taken forward in planning guidance, and I contributed to some work on this for ODPM. I do think that it is a good idea in theory. It may be thought of as the "feedback loop" for affordability targets. It is particularly good if linked to another desirable feature of planning, namely that it should look further ahead and be less "incremental". In other words, planning should look forward 20-25 years and identify those areas which are most suitable for urban development. On this basis, there should be a large portfolio of sites which are potentially to be developed for housing. There would a "batting order" (phasing) of these sites, but the key point is that this could be revised, or accelerated, if the market signals indicated a need for more supply. Without such an orderly, longer term planning approach, market-contingent land release could be recipe for some very bad decisions, taken in haste and repented at leisure. There are still dangers and limitations. In particular, because of the time lags involved in housing supply, there is some danger that supply triggered during a market boom may come on stream during a market downturn (given that we have not wholly abolished market cycles in housing). Nevertheless, that danger is probably less than the danger of maintaining a completely rigid and unresponsive supply system.


  It is obvious and well-understood that the housing market displays extreme regional variation in England. It appears that this tendency has become more pronounced although this appearance can be exaggerated if you look at particular time periods, because of the so-called "ripple effect". The regional disparities are exacerbated by supply constraints, but it is clear that they are strongly driven by economic and employment trends. In particular, London plays a dominant role in our increasingly service-oriented economy, with the "Greater South East" playing a very important complementary role. Some people argue, of course, that the right solution to our regional imbalance is to shift economic activity and jobs from the south to the north, rather than building lots of extra housing in the south. It is true that regional imbalance is not new and that in the past (between approximately 1940 and 1980) we did have active regional economic policies which aimed to move "work to the workers". More recently such policies have been very limited, and partly channelled and constrained by the EU.

  The Committee may wish to ask the Government to clarify its regional policy. My guess is that their answer, if honest, is that they do not believe a 1960s-style regional economic policy is a feasible option for them now, post-globalisation. In other words, there is a reluctance to try to direct businesses to locate somewhere other than where they choose, for fear that the alternative choices are (in many cases) in other countries, within Europe and beyond. The emphasis is upon all cities and regions trying to make the most of their assets and to nurture their "endogenous growth". Both Greater London and the South East are perceived as key economic assets and drivers for Great Britain plc.

  Given this policy climate, I think it follows logically and pragmatically that we have to provide housing to support the economic growth where it is going to occur. If we don't, our planning system will continue to be like driving a car around with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. The corollary is that, if local authorities or regional assemblies in the south say that they don't want these housing numbers, they should be saying no to the economic growth as well. Then we might have a bottom-up regional policy.


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Stephens, M, Munro, M & Whitehead, C. (2005) Evaluation of English Housing Policy Since 1975. London. ODPM.

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